Snake Dance, 1920–1935
Oqwa Pi (Abel Sánchez), San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1899–1971
Tempera on wove paper
11 1/4 × 14 1/4 in.
Gift of Miss Ima Hogg

Habits of Mind

  • COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support

Writing Scripts

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Write about their masks, describing the art elements and the expressive qualities.

•  Create dramatic presentations using masks.




Language Arts



Connecting to the Work of Art

This painting depicts three dancers with snakes and a fourth snake, on the ground.  The dancers shake gourd rattles with one hand while holding live snakes in the other.  They dance with snakes in their mouths, then release them as sacred messengers who carry their prayers to the Underworld in hopes of abundant spring rainfall for summer crops.  Snakes represent lightning because they move in a zigzag pattern.  The black zigzag patterns on the kilts also represent snakes.  Both snakes and lightning are traditional Pueblo symbols.

The style of the modern school of American Indian painting is a combination of the symbolic and the naturalistic.  Here the artist focuses on details of clothing, face-painting, texture, and dance movements.  However, the figures themselves are symbolic, presented flat against a plain background frozen in motion.  There is no horizon line and no indication of time or place.


Among the Pueblos, painting on the walls of kivas and on pottery has a long history.  Painting on paper is a Euro-American tradition introduced to the indigenous people of the southwestern United States around 1910.  Inspired by the intellectual Anglo community in and around Santa Fe, painting was taught at the Santa Fe Indian School, a boarding school for boys from many different tribes.  The works usually represent traditional dances and ceremonies, animals, and scenes of daily life.  These paintings were made for sale to those outside the Indian communities.


Very little is known about Oqwa Pi (Abel Sanchez), the artist of Snake Dance.  He was born at San Ildefonso Pueblo in 1899 and painted primarily from 1920 until 1935.  He served as lieutenant governor and governor of his pueblo for a total of eight terms.


  • What type of artwork is this?

  • What do you notice about the three figures?

  • What can you say about foreground and background? Is there perspective in the painting?

  • How do the snakes correspond with other compositional elements?

  • How does the artist suggest movement?


  • There is no reference to place or time in the artwork. What elements can you see that could hint at a place and/or time?

  • The artwork was made in San Ildefonso Pueblo, and area in New Mexico famous for pottery. What links to pottery can you see in this painting? Look at geometrical features, lack of horizon and flatness of the picture plane.

  • The snake has mythical qualities in the ancient Pueblo cultures. This painting dates from the 20th century. What associations do you have with snakes?

  • Why do you think the figures are wearing masks?

  • Paintings in Pueblo culture usually refer to traditional dances and ceremonies, animals, and scenes of daily life. What could the function of this snake dance be?

  • The style of this painting is a combination of the symbolic and the naturalistic. Which elements in this artwork hint at the naturalistic, and which at the symbolic?

Connecting to the Classroom

•  Describe the features of the animals portrayed.  Discuss the symbolism of the animals.  Why was the snake important to the Pueblo people?

•  How would you expect people wearing these masks to behave?  Why?  How would each person express the characteristics of a snake, elephant, buffalo or wolf?


  • Using the information in Connecting to the Work of Art, work in teams to write scripts depicting the activity and culture reflected in Snake Dance.  Use scripts for five-minute dramatizations Record presentations.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider